By Emerson Dameron
To quote God in “Futurama”: “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” But when a design project gets ugly, its creator gets attention.
Dan Allen, a Chicagoan and a professional designer of ten years, has done graphic design for print and web and is now exploring the growing field of user interface design. His side-interests include an influential role in the bulletin-board-style web community reddit.com—he worked on the UI design for its Enhancement Suite, a wildly popular Chrome and Firefox extension that adds a phalanx of features—and an eye for particularly dreadful design work.
Allen’s fascination with crappy design goes back to his first job out of college. His employer’s house style left much to be desired in the way of elegance. “I was forced to play along with this standard because it was my job. I am amazed that I lasted for about ten months before quitting. It was excruciating. I once got yelled at by the owner for not underlining a hypertext link. So that was a burr in my saddle that stayed with me for a long time.” He developed a keen interest in what turns a simple Adobe file into an aesthetic debacle.
By that time, Allen was already a long-haul digital denizen, and he looked to the internet as an outlet for his frustration. “I tried to start up a blog to chronicle the bad design I found out in the wild, but just couldn’t stay motivated to keep on it.”
Founded in 2005, reddit bills itself as “the front page of the internet” and has twenty-eight employees. Much of the lifting is done by hundreds of thousands of active “redditors” who post links and comments, and particularly by volunteer moderators who keep the site’s distinct communities (“subreddits”) clean, thriving and stocked with fresh material. Using the handle solidwhetstone, Allen has been active on reddit for five years—since well before its traffic mushroomed after the sudden decline of its chief competitor Digg.com—and moderates twenty-eight subreddits.
One of the solidwhetstone-moderated subreddits is r/CrappyDesign, a page full of community-submitted examples of visual presentation gone awry.
“Eventually, I realized, ‘Why don’t I make a subreddit to collect all the bad design I can find?’ It was more for my own consumption than anything. I feel an obligation to call out bad design because the people perpetuating it at the professional level should know better.”
Allen concedes that there’s an element of schadenfreude in the community’s appeal. “It’s hard to deny that looking at bad design is kind of addicting. I’m not sure what morbid portion of the brain is triggered, but you get this sense of enjoyment and giddiness when you’ve found something truly awful.”
At 23,500 subscribers strong, r/CrappyDesign’s stock in trade includes Photoshop failures, ridiculously lazy and ham-fisted work, and projects that were bad ideas from the beginning. Posters call out small-business websites and large agency work alike. Current front-page examples include a religious site with flames and scrolling text, a Victoria’s Secret ad with mangled grammar, and a sign in Braille that a designer neglected to raise.
The subreddit’s custom font is the much-loathed Comic Sans, the design is intentionally eye-searing, and it offers its contributors a selection of emoticons. All this underscores the punchy sense of humor that comes with poring over so much of this stuff.
Allen acknowledges that most designers probably look at the posts with some relief that they’re past the points in their lives where they would use auto-starting music or a headline in Papyrus.
“It’s enjoyable to look at others who are where we were and have a good chuckle,” he says, “because it’s all too familiar.”